A Visit to Storm King Art Center

By P.J. Walsh

…before the mind intoxicate
With present objects and the busy dance
Of things that pass away, a temperate show
Of objects that endure.
—Wordsworth

I guess it started with Instagram. Not a very high-minded medium, but there it is. Post after post of people walking through wide-open fields, standing beside, underneath and inside giant sculptures. There was even some sort of tram. What was this place? Well, it’s not too difficult to be confused about Storm King, because there’s nowhere else like Storm King. Its size and mission are unique and extraordinary. I hit the New York Public Library for some books to acquaint myself with the site’s history and focus, and planned my trip.

It’s not so bad getting there—an hour and a quarter from Midtown Manhattan, most of it on the scenic Palisades Parkway. You can even shake off the oppressive city vibes with a stop at State Line Lookout half an hour into the trip.

A few twisty miles on back mountain roads and you’re there, pulling up alongside a little toll booth shack where you purchase your ticket. An official-looking person points the way into the parking lot. You’ll see quite a few official-looking people around the grounds, usually zipping around in carts and keeping a careful eye on things. They are there to answer questions and to make sure you don’t do anything too stupid. They are ever watchful but not intrusive, like CCTV in London or the Holy Spirit.

So now  I was inside the grounds. I walked out of the parking lot and in all three directions the scenery, or viewshed as they say around these parts, stretched off into the distance and out of sight. There are no borders, natural or man-made, until you reach the nearest mountain. Everything is beautiful and vivid, but the size is intimidating—where to start?

There’s a visitor’s center and a museum that is supposed to be quite lovely, but I had no patience for that. I was here to see great sweeping vistas and sculptures that could crush a truck, not a few swirls of paint or delicate statuary. I pulled out the handy visitor’s map and began looking through the names of the artists. I was unfamiliar with them. I looked instead at the names of the artwork, which weren’t something helpful, like Statue of Strong Nude Man with  Sword by Leonardo Da Vinci, but rather enigmatic and possibly practical jokes. I’m thinking especially of Mozart’s  Birthday by Mark Di Suvero. I put my map away and started walking.

The original 180 acres between Schunnemunk State Park and Storm King Mountains (now over 500) were purchased in 1958 by Ralph Ogden with the intention of their housing a museum for Hudson River paintings. In 1960, when the museum was opened, the type of monumental sculptures to be found on the grounds now didn’t exist yet. In 1961, when the first modest-size sculpture arrived, Ogden and cofounder H. Peter Stern didn’t know where to put it. Eventually they decided to place the work, by Josef Pillhofer, outside the museum and, as Stern put it, “the dialogue between art and nature opened.” A further emphasis on sculpture occurred in 1967 with the purchase of thirteen statues created by David Smith. Here’s one now:

Now hold on —I can hear you saying, “I thought I was brought here to look at sculpture. This doesn’t look like a Greek wrestler or fallen angel or any sculpture I’m familiar with.” Well, straw man, that’s because David Smith is an abstract expressionist. I don’t want this to deter you from visiting, so before you close your browser tab, give me a few moments before going back to Reddit.

In A Case for the Importance of Culture in a Prosperous Society, Dorothy Kosinski quotes John Dewey: “The moral function of art is itself to remove prejudice, do away with scales that keep the eye from seeing, tear away the veils due to want and custom, perfect the power to perceive.” In other words art doesn’t just connect us to those like us; it creates “a bridge of understanding between ‘us’ and ‘them.’” This would seem a pretty noble goal, no? Why, then, knowing all the benefits of art do we, as Michael Fried would have it, shy away from “…life lived as few are inclined to live it: in a state of continuous intellectual and moral alertness”?

A succinct and hilarious response was given by Shirley on the TV show Community. When asked to watch one of Abed’s meta-films, which would have required her to be in the elevated and attentive state of mind recommended by Dewey and Fried, she had this to say:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oCE0hiUWlcU&feature=youtu.be

And indeed, some of us do have work in the morning, Charlie Kaufman. Well, if you don’t care for art at all, just google the pictures of how lovely the grounds are and imagine wandering around all of that luxurious verdant space instead of sitting in your cramped apartment. Or here, look at one of mine:

Not bad, right? Your kids could run all the hell over that space, and they’re even allowed to touch some of the art. And given that  the art is welded steel, there isn’t much chance they’ll break it. Can’t say that about what’s in the Guggenheim. And sure, there’s an object in the picture above that may trouble you, but if it’s causing you too much distress, just look in a different direction.

A few weeks before my trip to Storm King, I had the pleasure of visiting Williams College Museum of Art and viewing Elliott Erwitt’s photo Jackie Kennedy at Funeral, 1963. I suggest you google it for a better view, because I can’t afford the rights from Magnum, sorry. It is arresting and affecting, with a pathos that is palpable, and all but throbs through the glass. This glamorous, strong, intelligent woman is depicted as we’re not used to seeing her: with a childlike, naive expression of wonderment in the face of death. She is not reduced by grief but simply stripped of the artifice of Camelot. We seem to have caught her in a moment of understanding. The pain registers immediately.

Only a few steps away from this incredible picture, the viewer is confronted by an object. I present here a picture of this object, which is not an effective medium for conveying the art form, but it’s the best I have at my disposal.

At first glance it appears to be an engine casing or similar piece of heavy machinery, suspended by chains and wire and encased in a self-supporting frame. Careful study and reflection didn’t reveal much to this viewer. Nothing was immediately apparent. I retreated to a description on the wall.

The plaque informs us that this work is named Chaino, and that it was completed by Melvin Edwards. As Edwards’ other art is referred to as abstract welded sculpture and this is welded steel and chains, I was confident that what I was witnessing was an abstract welded sculpture. I glanced at the sculpture again and read on. The sculpture is attempting to evoke a violated human body. Edwards is evoking a duality: the chains as “indicators of slavery and oppression, as well as a means of connection and kinship…”

I looked at the object again with knowledge of its artistic intent. Now that I was informed of the meaning, the engine casing began to look to me like a heart. A heart surrounded by tensed wires that vibrated, now, with new knowledge. A heart at once locked together and pulled apart, this tensile juxtaposition and metallurgical transubstantiation made possible through the cruelty that the piece evokes.

Back to the plaque again. The artist’s secondary message is indicated in the title—a nod to Chano Pozo, the Afro-Cuban jazz musician credited with introducing the genre to the United States. The music of the oppressed, a binding agent, born of the tortured heart. Back at the sculpture I leaned closer now, noticing the cracks, the blackened burns from a torch. The closer I looked, the more I saw, the more it changed. The chains, which I first saw with puzzlement, then with sorrow and anger, evolved into something different—something supportive. The chain links became a community, each bearing the weight of its burden, each assisting the next.

I walked back over and looked at Jackie. One tortured heart, one face compared to countless millions. Photography cannot speak the language of 1 million dead. Our minds wouldn’t know what to do with the images, even if they were lined up individually, one after the other. They wouldn’t register the tragedy. If it is germaine to ask after the utility of sculpture beyond its artistic merit, it is this—to capture in a separate language what words and pictures are unable to do. Their insufficiency being a product of our inability to comprehend the magnitude of certain subjects. Sculpture is a symbolic language, our code for matters too big for other mediums.

Now look, I’m not telling you that every sculpture you encounter has been designed to pack the wallop and emotional resonance of a work by Chaino. I’m simply trying to make the case that in art, as in much of life, you get out of it what you put into it. Sometimes you have to stop and read the signs.

Anyway, back to Storm King. After the death of cofounder Ralph Ogden in 1974, H. Peter Stern assumed full responsibility for the institution. This was a fortuitous time. Monumental abstract sculpture was coming into its own, and after the gallery showings, there really wasn’t anywhere to place these colossal pieces. A collector couldn’t exactly put a fifty-foot sculpture in his foyer. After Mark Di Suvero’s exhibition at the Whitney in 1975, Stern found out the sculpture would be packed away and placed in storage. Inspiration struck. He invited Di Suvero to store his sculptures in the fields of Storm King.

You can see them from a distance out there in the fields, indelicate and looming. Di Suvero’s sculptures, some constructed from welded I-beams painted candy apple red, are feats of engineering that impress for their sheer extravagance as much as their artistic merit. They are intimidating. Di Suvero anticipated my reaction: “…most adults are deficient children; they don’t know how to play anymore. The pure response is the child’s response.”

In other words, there’s no wrong way to approach them—use your imagination. Perhaps because I’m used to having a camera slung around my neck and eyeing my surroundings for potential snapshots, I found myself framing the grounds and other sculptures through the changing shapes of the structures as I circled them. The closer I moved, the larger the frame. The more acute my angle of approach, the more angular and constricted my view became—shocking green grass or bright blue sky, electric between red slashes. A dynamic, vibrant geometry.

Over time, Storm King purchased more land and there were more options for Stern and his staff, as well as for the artists themselves, as to where these pieces could be placed. It was and remains a complex chess game—the pieces must be situated in genius loci: perfectly situated not just for the particular attributes of the artwork, but in relation to the environment and to the other artworks as well. It was a fluid process, which is perhaps why it has been such a successful process. Stern says in the introduction to Earth, Sky, and Sculpture: Storm King Art Center, “We wanted to bring the interrelationships of a remarkable landscape and great sculpture to its full potential. We were not burdened by rigid ideas or concepts.”

The flexibility shown by Storm King has been reciprocated by the artists, not just in sharing control with a committee regarding where their work is placed, but in putting aside their egos and sharing space with so many other artists on the grounds. During the 1985 retrospective of Di Suvero’s work, he was photographed alongside fellow artists Isamu Noguchi and Louise Nevelson. Di Suvero’s comment on the photo: “Only at Storm King would we all agree to be in one photograph.” This attitude of Di Suvero’s helps illustrate his appreciation of the truly remarkable effort put into Storm King by its founders, both financial and physical. This landscape has been blasted, drained, dug up, built upon and reinforced—changed in countless ways to accommodate and accentuate the art that it displays.

A simple way to distinguish what Di Suvero does is to examine his process. His brand of abstract expressionism is largely improvisational—he doesn’t know what he’s going to make until he’s in the act of making it. Abstract expressionists like him are influenced by existentialist writers such as Sartre and Camus, whose philosophy was that life in the face of inevitable death is absurd, and trying to confront this absurdity with reason is a fool’s errand. What’s left, then? Despite the grim eventuality of death, you musn’t submit to despair; you must construct a life of your own by remaining open to change and living in joyful expectancy.

This credo is more than just theoretical in Di Suvero’s case. In 1960 his body was crushed under an elevator and he was told he would never walk again. Within months he was back to work in a wheelchair, and before long he was back on his feet. In fact, after the accident, he didn’t just return to his old sculpture; he began making his largest works yet, wanting to “emulate the gesture and the immediacy of ‘big’ abstract expressionist pictures.”

Observing these feats of construction made me think of walking through my Brooklyn neighborhood. Amidst the concrete, asphalt, steel and glass, a lone tree sticks up through a square in the sidewalk, a single sprig of nature amidst the chaos of metropolitan life. Here we have the opposite—the I-beams balanced gracefully, grounded in the soft earth and surrounded by the living trees and swaying branches. Wind blows through the leaves and across the bright surface of the artworks, a testament to man’s industry and creativity amidst nature’s own splendors.

Wandering away from Di Suvero, another piece caught my eye. From far away, it looked like a Christmas present. Maybe because it looked so different from the pieces I had just been admiring, or maybe because I’m a sucker for awning stripes, I spent some time admiring it.

Partially remembered articles by Michael Fried, Donald Judd, Robert Morris and Clement Greenberg swam before me, their precise meaning just out of reach. Okay, let’s see, would this be considered minimalist art, or as Fried would call it, I thought smugly, literalist art? Well, literalist art is a plea for a new genre of theater, and theater is the negation of art according to…someone. Theatrical art, if I remember correctly, is supposed to be nonpersonal and distance itself from us. Hmmm, the striped box didn’t seem to be distancing itself from me. It certainly didn’t seem very theatrical. I mean,  it was just sitting there, after all. Maybe Fried wasn’t whom I needed.

How about Clement Greenberg? I knew he was a pretty important critic. Also that he was played very well by Jeffrey Tambor in Ed Harris’ Pollock, which probably wouldn’t be of much use here but was worth noting. Old Clem had a lot to say about the “presence” of literalist art. I wasn’t feeling too much of a presence, to be perfectly honest. It looked like a goddamn green-and-white box. How about Robert Morris? Morris states that “the experience of literalist art is of an object in a situation, one that…includes the beholder.” Well there I was. Just a boy, standing in front of a box, waiting for it to love me. Wait, that was Notting Hill.

Exhausted by my mental efforts, I moved on, secure in the knowledge that I would never be a tenured art professor. I simply don’t seem to have the knack for it. If I had bothered to turn to the other side of my visitor’s map, I would have seen that there were ten of these identical objects scattered around the grounds, doing double duty as both seating and art objects.  They’re basically fancy benches. Created by Daniel Buren, they are titled Sit Down.

I may have missed my opportunity to sit down on Buren’s bench, but the little illustrated hand on my map let me know that I was now approaching an interactive artwork: Gazebo for Two Anarchists: Gabriella Antolini and Alberto Antolini by Siah Armajani.

The eponymous brother and sister transported explosives during the Youngstown Affair of 1918 for the noble cause of anarchy, which landed the distaff half of the duo in the clink. The two blue portions are meant to represent the separated siblings, while the white bridge represents their enduring connection.

The picturesque outside contrasts with the inhospitable inside, illustrating some sort of duality I was too tired to care about at the particular moment I was there. I was using the piece more as a chair than as an interactive experience to reflect on anarchy, a casualty of mixing high art and low blood sugar. I had fallen out of Dewey’s platonic ideal of art viewing, and I needed sustenance. I left to find the café.

The day I visited, the café was not a hotbed of activity. This suited me just fine. I wanted to regroup and put myself back in the proper mindset to appreciate what I was seeing—to hold myself to a higher standard. I felt this called for a drink.

How was I feeling at this point? Overwhelmed. Sort of stunned by the scale and scope of what I was seeing mingled with disbelief that the sculptures worked so well in their surroundings—beautiful, harmonious and of a piece. The best of what I’d seen, or more accurately the pieces that resonated with me the most at the times when I was at my most receptive, gave me the same feeling as my favorite short film, All My Life by Bruce Baillie. You can watch it here:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xxN0bB64Xxg&index=69&list=WL&t=0s

This film fills me with hope and gratitude. You know, the way crappy mass-produced art prints at T.J.Maxx and Kohl’s tell you that you should feel.

The closest cognate I can find in narrative film is Amelie. If you enjoy that film, you’ll understand the message of joy through creation and experience and mere existence. Your mileage may vary according to your tolerance for subtitles.

At times even when I was dialed in à la Dewey and Fried, I found myself so overwhelmed by the 360-degree assault of stimulus on the senses that the individual artworks seemed simply a part of the environment. I understand that many of the staff at Storm King would be happy to hear that, but I couldn’t help but wish for a frame, or simply a label pointing to front and back. I recognize this as simply another form of laziness to be fought against, but feel the need to confess it here.

Put another way, viewing these pieces at times felt like attempting to take a picture of an object that keeps increasing in size. As soon as you have it properly framed, you have to step back to account for the increase in volume, the increase in information. So you take a few steps back, reframe, and once again the size, the information, the totality that needs to be framed and accounted for in order to present the object in an accurate context has increased yet again. You sigh and repeat the process. It becomes exhausting. I resolved to try a little harder. Refreshed, I headed out into the fields again.

With Di Suvero and Armajani, I was given a sense of balance, of counterpoise. Waving at me over a nearby hill was a different animal altogether.

Unlike Di Suvero, Alexander Calder seems to keep the viewer (at least this viewer) off kilter. Instead of counterbalance, we have elements that contradict one another, as in The Arch, which appears to shift and change with a minuscule change of viewpoint. Far from being improvisational like Di Suvero, Calder designed miniature models, referred to as maquettes, before fabrication was begun on his colossal pieces. Di Suvero disparagingly called this practice “designer art.”

Tal Streeter caught me off guard as well, and not just because his name makes him sound like an ’80s pop icon instead of a conceptual sculptor. A fellow with the MIT Center for Advanced Visual Studies and an internationally renowned kite artist(!), he created Endless Column, which was originally installed in New York City’s Central Park at the corner of 79th Street and Fifth Avenue. I hope the four photos below taken from different angles illustrate just how oddly wonderful, magical and of all things natural it appears in its current setting.

Like Calder, he used maquettes to get the design just right, but there were unforeseen complications, and both he and Storm King’s staff had to learn on the job, so to speak. Endless Column suffered from exposure to the elements, including having a portion blown off in a windstorm and being repeatedly struck by lighting. An internal lighting rod solved the latter problem.

Some sculptures weren’t lucky enough to survive the wear and tear of the elements. Built between 1970 and 1971, Alexander Liberman’s Adonai was constructed from welded oil drums that had been buried underground for twenty years before being purchased by the artist. Protective coatings were applied, but numerous welds broke and it was at risk of collapse. The sculpture had to be refabricated in 2000.

In the critical and academic journals I leafed through, there were many eyebrow-raising descriptions and interpretations of the artwork on display. A personal favorite is by Irving Lavin of the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey. He describes the sculpture below—another Liberman, titled Iliad—as “stalk[ing] across the earth like the armored Achilles before the walls of Troy, resounding with the hollow clangor of bloody war.”

Given Lavin’s august stature, I hate to disagree with nhim, but after I examined the object from all sides, the most creative description I could come up with was “a McDonald’s PlayPlace designed by someone who hated children.”

It seemed I was once again slipping out of the rarified air of intellectual and moral alertness—about time to pack it in. Right before the parking lot is a mound, and on that mound is a striking piece: Frog Legs by Di Suvero. When I’d walked by early that morning, it had seemed to be wielding a sword or javelin, ready to attack any mortal challenger foolish enough to attack its position.

That evening, approached in a different light, from a different angle and in a different frame of mind, it appeared on the defensive—holding shields, a final bulwark against an unseen foe.

I climbed to the top of the hill and sat by this inscrutable figure. I thought of playing King of the Hill at my grandparents’ house. Of being indestructible one minute and airborne the next, rolling down the grass slope, legs flailing, chest pounding and coming to rest in an undignified pile in front of a long-gone acorn tree. I thought of all the things I don’t understand about art and about people and about life and about how it all doesn’t really matter. It was just nice to be there.

I have good news: you can call the art whatever you’d like—it doesn’t care. What matters is that you understand that this land, this magnificent public trust, these pieces of art (whatever label they’re given)—all of it is for you. This is your space. It feels unlimited, too big to explore, unfillable. Let your kids run around. Hell, run around yourself. Roll down a hill; the people in the carts  won’t mind. Probably. I left thinking that I didn’t see enough. Thankfully, everything will be waiting for me when I go back.

P.J. Walsh writes from NYC.

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